Why are we so embarrassed about breasts?


Sarah Darmody

Australia, we have 22 million pairs of breasts. Sarah Darmody thinks it's time we talked ...


Even as the editor of a book about breasts, I didn’t expect any truly uncomfortable questions on six week, four state book tour of Australia a few years ago.  After all, this was a book born not out of a desire to rattle any cages or ignite any gender wars, but simply to entertain readers in order to raise money for breast cancer research.  Thanks for the Mammaries housed 25 donated stories about breasts.  Most were very funny, only a few could be classed as erotic. My own story dealt with the loss of my breasts at 29 and my subsequent reconstruction - via surgical talent and small dollops of plastic - as Sarah version 2.0.

But something happened on my book tour that made me very cross.

My press kit must have mentioned that I was living in deep dark Arabia at the time because I found myself dodging more than a few questions from interviewers about my then home in Abu Dhabi. I was in no way equipped to discuss the intricacies of life in the UAE.  In fact, I’m ashamed to admit that it took me three months of living in Abu Dhabi before I realised I was on an island (I know, but it was dark when we landed).

For the most part I just thought these questions were silly (you want to know what it feels like to ‘live somewhere very hot’ instead of what it’s like to have your healthy breasts chopped off before 9 am?) but one question really got under my skin in a surprising way.


A radio interviewer asked, ‘So what was it like writing about breasts in a country where women have to cover themselves up all the time?’ His voice was genuinely giddy with bewilderment. 

‘You mean Australia?’ I quipped. I was tired, and I’m not a cultural attaché. At best, I represented breasts. The interviewer laughed. ‘No, I mean in Abu Dhabi, where women have to cover themselves up in front of men.’

Yeah, gotcha the first time. ‘Or AUSTRALIA.’

What?’ he said, incredulous, ‘ Look at the girls up on the Gold Coast with their boo – breasts out all over the place!’

‘All over the place on the beach?’ I ask, ‘Or out driving busses and sipping coffee in the sun?’ There was some laughing like I’d told a very funny joke.

‘Seriously, ‘ I asked, ‘What is so magical about sand that an uncovered breast is OK there,  but put one toe on the concrete with your nipples still out, and you’ll be scorned or arrested for indecency?’  I’m pretty sure he moved on from that point, but I realised I haven’t.

On a morning television show some days later, I waited in the green room with Eric Bana when it occurred to me that if Eric – the incredible hulk, action hero – had undergone major chest surgery and had two impressive scars to prove it, the producer might ask if he was comfortable showing them on TV. ‘Sure!’ I pictured Eric saying.  And that would be just fine. With everyone. They’d probably even do a close-up, because how could Eric’s nipples possibly be a bother? And viewers would then tweet messages of support and appreciation.

Showing my healed scars might actually have been useful for people who (like me) were nervous about what their bodies might look like after cancer surgery, or wonder if they can still feel like attractive humans when scarred. It would be reassuring to the audience. Right? I could almost hear David and Kim or Mel and Kochie saying ‘Ah, I see, that’s fantastic! Isn’t it amazing what doctors can do now?’ because they are all grown-ups with functioning human breasts.  But no, my scars would have been obscene, not merely illustrative.  ‘Bana Bares All’ would be heroic. ‘Author Exposes Herself on TV’ would be an offence.  I would be disgusting.

So despite all the beautiful support and best wishes my book was receiving, I began to get this icky, troubled feeling that wouldn’t go away. Back in Abu Dhabi, those feelings became darker.  I heard fellow female expats deride the local women for bending to the wishes of ‘their society’ and ‘bullies of men’ to cover up their gorgeous hair, youthful beauty and sublime figures, and instead of agreeing I just got exasperated.

‘Really?’ I said, ‘So you can sit topless on a park bench in Canada if it’s a nice day? Or mow the front lawn in Florida with only a pair of shorts on?’

The expats laughed at me like I’d also just told a very funny joke. The same way Emirati women always laughed if you suggested they ever let the men in to female-only wedding parties to see their incredible ball gowns replete with bare shoulders, tumbling hair and plunging necklines (the Brownlows have nothing on an Emirati wedding).

Personally, I don’t want to walk around Sydney or Melbourne or Wagga Wagga with my breasts out, and not just because my particular reconstructed pair have scars on them. For starters, I really like clothes, and I also sweat a lot in summer and feel the cold in winter, so some form of fitted cotton garment is my choice for my chest. The difference here is choice.

In Australia, my nipples must be covered up. There is no choice. To be topless in public is indecent, and punishable by law.  And this isn’t just another case of a crusty old legal system not catching up with what we want. Our society happily self-censors. Just look at the support, both male and female alike, for comments that an exposed human breast nourishing a child should be ‘classy’ or ‘discreet’ in order to not offend people. Or to Facebook, which defines a fully exposed breast as one showing the nipple or areola. Facebook’s guidelines consider this exposure – as do many societies, including our own – as obscene, pornographic, and sexually explicit.

Oh, hang on, they don’t make this clear, so I should add it, this is for a woman. What about men’s fully exposed breasts? You know, those same human breasts with breast tissue and the fully exposed nipples and areolas that sportsmen flash us constantly, as well as middle-aged male politicians doing meet-the-press straight out of the surf?

It’s different, people sigh to me constantly, because women’s breasts are sexual.  Wait, I have news for you.  In Abu Dhabi, so is a woman’s ankle, precisely because it’s covered up. But no, the feedback to this opinion piece will surely say, the ankle comparison doesn’t hold at all because women’s breasts are capable of sexual arousal!  Well, you know what?  So are men’s.

Men and women both have breasts, simple fact of medical science. Mammary glands, breast tissue, nipples. And these same nipples can become erect due to temperature or stimulation in both men and women. Equally. For both sexes. Breasts are not sexual organs. They are not genitals. They may be culturally fetishised, like ankles, but they do not serve a biologically sexual function. The only thing a woman’s breast can do that’s special is occasionally provide nourishment to human young.

And if fat old men with full, sagging d-cups and huge, spreading nipples can walk around my city without a shirt, bouncing and swaying and jiggling, but society can point the finger at my discreet, naked a-cups and cry ‘obscene!’ why are they legally correct? More importantly, why do we seem to think this is just funny and insignificant, shrill and trivial perhaps, but the issue of my former fully-covered neighbours in Abu Dhabi is still the source of feminist outrage and international scorn?

Let me get my tits out Australia. I’m not embarrassed about them, but I’m embarrassed for you. I’m embarrassed for all of us actually. I don’t really want to get them out, but go on, just bloody let me, so we can all stop being embarrassed together and move on to more important things. Like nostril hair.